According to a new study by researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in some regions more than a quarter of the warming from increased carbon dioxide is due to its direct impact on vegetation.
This warming is in addition to carbon dioxide's better-known effect as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. For scientists trying to predict global climate change in the coming century, the study underscores the importance of including plants in their climate models.
"Plants have a very complex and diverse influence on the climate system," says study co-author Ken Caldeira of Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology. "Plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but they also have other effects, such as changing the amount of evaporation from the land surface. It's impossible to make good climate predictions without taking all of these factors into account."
Plants give off water through tiny pores in their leaves, a process called evapotranspiration that cools the plant, just as perspiration cools our bodies. On a hot day, a tree can release tens of gallons of water into the air, acting as a natural air conditioner for its surroundings. The plants absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis through the same pores (called stomata). But when carbon dioxide levels are high, the leaf pores shrink. This causes less water to be released, diminishing the tree's cooling power.
The warming effects of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas have been known for a long time, says Caldeira. But he and fellow Carnegie scientist Long Cao were concerned that it is not as widely recognized that carbon dioxide also warms our planet by its direct effects on plants. Previous work by Carnegie's Chris Field and Joe Berry had indicated that the effects were important. "There is no longer any doubt that carbon dioxide decreases evaporative cooling by plants and that this decreased cooling adds to global warming," says Cao. "This effect would cause significant warming even if carbon dioxide were not a greenhouse gas."
In their model, the researchers doubled the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and recorded the magnitude and geographic pattern of warming from different factors. They found that, averaged over the entire globe, the evapotranspiration effects of plants account for 16% of warming of the land surface, with greenhouse effects accounting for the rest. But in some regions, such as parts of North America and eastern Asia, it can be more than 25% of the total warming. "If we think of a doubling of carbon dioxide as causing about four degrees of warming, in many places three of those degrees are coming from the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and one is coming from the direct effect of carbon dioxide on plants."
The researchers also found that their model predicted that high carbon dioxide will increase the runoff from the land surface in most areas, because more water from precipitation bypasses the plant cooling system and flows directly to rivers and streams. Earlier models based on greenhouse effects of carbon dioxide had also predicted higher runoff, but the new research predicts that changes in evapotranspiration due to high carbon dioxide could have an even stronger impact on water resources than those models predict.
"These results really show that how plants respond to carbon dioxide is very important for making good climate predictions," says Caldeira. "So if we want to improve climate predictions, we need to improve the representation of land plants in the climate models. More broadly, it shows that the kind of vegetation that's on the surface of our planet and what that vegetation is doing is very important in determining our climate. We need to take great care in considering what kind of changes we make to forests and other ecosystems, because they are likely to have important climate consequences."
The study is published in the May 3-7 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Carnegie Institution (www.carnegiescience.edu) has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It is a private, nonprofit organization with six research departments throughout the U.S. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science. The Department of Global Ecology, located in Stanford, California, was established in 2002 to help build the scientific foundations for a sustainable future. Its scientists conduct basic research on a wide range of large-scale environmental issues, including climate change, ocean acidification, biological invasions, and changes in biodiversity.
Global threat to primates concerns us all
19.01.2017 | Deutsches Primatenzentrum GmbH - Leibniz-Institut für Primatenforschung
Reducing household waste with less energy
18.01.2017 | FIZ Karlsruhe – Leibniz-Institut für Informationsinfrastruktur GmbH
An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.
As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...
19.01.2017 | Event News
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
20.01.2017 | Awards Funding
20.01.2017 | Materials Sciences
20.01.2017 | Life Sciences